Open-source GM crops?

For many activists, Mark Lynas is nothing short of an apostate. The British author, journalist and environmental activist has transformed over the past decade from ardent genetically modified crop (GM) opponent into one of its highest-profile advocates. Despite authoring several books on the perils of climate change, he remains best known for his outspoken championing of the potential benefits of GM (also known as GMO, genetically modified organism) crop production. For Lynas, the real opportunities lie in developing open-source crops that are used for the betterment of humanity, moving away from the current dominance of the market by large agriculture biotechnology companies like Monsanto.

Corporate Knights recently caught up with Lynas during his recent visit to Toronto to speak with Ontario farmers. In a wide-ranging interview, he spoke of the anti-GMO movement, the ongoing battle over labelling requirements for GM foods, and some promising public-sector GM projects in the works.

CK: Tell us about your transformation from GMO opponent to supporter.

LYNAS: I was one of a large group of people involved in the early stages of the anti-GMO movement, but was certainly neither the most vocal nor the most effective. That being said, I’m really the only one that’s discovered science, to put it simplistically, and come out and talked about it. So I’m in a unique position of being somebody who’s publicly reversed their position on this – and that’s brought me a lot of attention, some of it welcome and some of it unwelcome.

CK: Why is it that many environmentalists place so much trust in science when it comes to climate change or loss of biodiversity, but these standards change once GM crops come up?

LYNASAnti-GMO people have been described as the climate skeptics of the left. Although that’s a simplification of the issue, it illustrates that what we’re talking about is a political issue. Climate skeptics (on the right) tend to be anti-big government. They’re against climate science because it will almost certainly require government intervention into the economy, while anti-GMO people are against the involvement of big corporations like Monsanto. They’re against biotechnology because it appears to only privilege big corporations. Now neither of these two positions is evidence-based, but the problem is that people find their information through the process of confirmation bias to justify pre-existing positions.

CK: Opponents of GMOs tend to focus on corporations like Monsanto being very litigious and protective of their seeds, at the expense of smaller farmers. Is that your thinking?

LYNAS: Monsanto did sue various farmers, and there have been numerous cause celebre like Percy Schmeiser. The question is, if all these GMO crops had blown into his field, how come they were in such neat rows? He clearly wanted to use the technology without paying for it. The reality is, if you contaminate someone’s property, you can’t sue them for property theft. The whole charge is absurd and wouldn’t stand up in court. Monsanto’s never taken out a case that’s alleged that, but that myth is persistent and still very powerful.

In hindsight, it’s clear that Monsanto should have refrained from suing anybody to avoid developing such an image problem. Even so, they felt the need to protect their intellectual property (IP) from farmers who wanted to save their seed and basically steal their IP. Farmers who use it have to sign an agreement that they won’t save the seed. It’s a biologically self-replicating technology.

Now if you’re concerned about IP and the patenting of crops, for me the logical corollary is to promote the development of GMOs in the public sector. I’ve been working with Cornell University, where I’m a visiting fellow, on a new project regarding Bt Brinjal, a GM eggplant that is pest-resistant in Bangladesh. Farmers there are currently spraying toxic insecticides without any kind of protection, often wearing nothing more than flip-flops. They spray it a hundred times a year during growing season, which leads to tens of thousands of poisonings annually. The GMO version would not need to be sprayed. It would be a vast improvement both environmentally and in terms of public health. The use of genetic modification, done in the public sector by a consortium of international and Bangladeshi scientists, has nothing to do with Monsanto.

I can’t say this enough: if you’re concerned about corporate monopolization, you don’t try and ban an entire technology in response. Back in the day, if you were concerned about Windows being a monopolistic approach to an operating system you didn’t try to ban all computers. What you want to do instead is to make the technology more available in the public sector, in a non-IP protected way, for the benefit of the poorer farmers. For me, that is way more interesting because there are so many applications, from golden rice to Brinjal, where GMOs can promote food security and the sustainability of agriculture.

CK: You mentioned golden rice. Can you discuss the controversy around it?

LYNAS: Golden rice is a single, targeted approach to tackling vitamin A deficiency, which kills two million or so children per year. Millions of families are dependent on rice for their staple food, so if there was beta-carotene in that rice it would reduce that deficiency and save a number of lives.

The opposition to golden rice is internationally supported. There’s this mentality in the west that promoting agro-ecological organic farming is the way to go for poorer countries, but the reality is that it confines farmers to a form of very low productivity farming. If they’re at subsistence level, they are currently struggling to feed themselves and their families. So you’re actually promoting food insecurity by externalizing the urban foodie biases of the modern world onto developing countries where they need to increase their productivity.

CK: Battles have sprung up in a number of individual states across the United States over proposals to mandate labelling on all food grown using GMOs. What’s your position on this?

LYNAS: This is where I get very critical of the biotech industry, because I think their strategies have been entirely counterproductive. Effectively spending millions of dollars trying to stop consumers from knowing where their products are being used is essentially the opposite of advertising. That’s tailor-made to make people feel scared about something, if it looks like there is an effort to cover up what the ingredients are in their food.

The way to dispel some of this mythology and fear mongering is to give people access to information. Opponents want a big GMO label because they want to stigmatize the product and get it off the shelves. They’re into prohibition, but there’s got to be some kind of middle road where we can actually give people the information that they want without the skull and crossbones stigmatization attached to it. You have to give people the option of finding out what’s in their food. Transparency should be the friend of science on this. If you don’t fill the void, the void will be filled by the conspiracy theorists. Let’s have farmers explain why they’re using GMO crops, and scientists demonstrate why they’re continuing to develop them. If you’re Monsanto and you want to explain why it’s beneficial for farmers to use this, you can if it’s labelled. You can’t if it’s hidden.

CK: What are the biggest barriers to the sort of open-source GMO research you’re advocating for?

LYNAS: Currently, it costs tens of millions of dollars in the United States to get through a regulatory system that is only applied to GMOs, but not any other form of crop breeding. In the U.S. and Europe, the only players that can navigate the system are the very biggest players, so the activists have created a situation where only corporations can afford to commercialize biotech crops. In the U.K. we’ve got Rothamsted Research and the John Innes Centre doing fantastic GM crop research. They’ve looked at aphid-resistant wheat, which wouldn’t need to be sprayed with agrochemicals. Can they get that through the European Union system? No way. So farmers are effectively banned from being able to access this technology. That’s the real stumbling block.

CK: Some GMO opponents have accused you of being an industry stooge. How do you respond to these accusations?

LYNAS: I’m a shill for science, I’m not a voice for hire. No one’s ever tried to buy me. It’s a classic ad hominem technique – if you can’t discredit someone’s argument then you try to discredit them personally.

CK: Some people have even drawn comparisons to Greenpeace activist turned industry consultant Patrick Moore…

LYNAS: For me, he’s a model of what to not end up as, because the only asset you have in my position is your independence, your credibility.

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